Diet Eman, Who Risked Her Life to Rescue Dutch Jews, Dies at 99

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For 50 years after her fiancé was seized by the Gestapo and she became a fugitive, Diet Eman remained largely silent about her role in the Dutch Resistance during World War II.

After the war she abandoned Europe for the Americas to escape the memories of friends and families lost, of unspeakable barbarism, of spineless collaboration, of the moments her religious faith was tested to its very limit.

“I wanted to forget,” she said — “to start a new life in a country where there were no memories and never talk about that time again.”

She became a nurse, learned Spanish, worked for Shell Oil in Venezuela, married an American engineer named Egon Erlich, divorced and moved to Michigan, where she worked for an export company.

Her heroism was not entirely forgotten. After the war she was occasionally asked to speak about the Resistance. She privately received congratulations from public figures.

But it wasn’t until 1978, after she heard a fellow Dutch Resistance fighter, Corrie ten Boom, speak in her Michigan hometown, that she began to think that she had an obligation to reveal her story about saving Jews, ferrying Allied pilots to safety and escaping the Gestapo.

A psychologist friend suggested that recounting her experiences would be therapeutic. Her son also urged her to write.

Finally, in 1990, after she appeared at a conference on suffering and survival held at Dordt College (now Dordt University), a Christian Reformed Church institution in Sioux Center, Iowa, a professor there, James C. Schaap, persuaded her to write a memoir about what had gone unexpressed for so long.

Titled “Things We Couldn’t Say” and written with Professor Schaap, it was published in 1994.

“When the war ended we all said, ‘This can never happen again,’” Ms. Eman wrote. “But now polls show that 22 percent of the U.S. population does not believe there was a Holocaust. The story has to be retold so that history does not repeat itself.”

Diet Eman (pronounced deet EE-mahn) died on Sept. 3 at her home in Grand Rapids, Mich. She was 99. Her death was confirmed by John Evans, a family spokesman, who directed the film “The Reckoning” (2007), which documented her experience in the Dutch Resistance.

She is survived by two children, Joy Coe and Mark Aryeh Erlich; and a granddaughter.

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan hailed Ms. Eman in a letter for risking her safety “to adhere to a higher law of decency and morality.” In 1998, Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel, granted her the title of Righteous Among the Nations, given to non-Jews for risking their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust; she was cited for her leadership in sheltering them. In 2015, King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, during a stop in Grand Rapids on a promotional tour for Dutch businesses, lauded Ms. Eman as “one of our national heroes.” (She became a United States citizen in 2007.)

Berendina Roelfina Hendrika Eman was born on April 30, 1920, in The Hague to Gerrit and Johanna Maria Eman. Her father was an interior decorator. The couple could afford to send only two of their children to college and chose their sons.

Ms. Eman, at 20, was living with her parents and bicycling to work at the Twentsche Bank in The Hague when, in May 1940, the Germans, hours after Hitler had vowed to respect Dutch neutrality, invaded the Netherlands. Her sister’s fiancé was killed on the first of five days of fighting. (A brother died later in a Japanese prison camp.)

Some of her neighbors, fellow churchgoers, argued that for whatever reason, God in his wisdom must have willed the German invasion. But Ms. Eman — herself so deeply religious that she would leave assassinations, sabotage and, for the most part, even lying to others — could find no justification for such evil.

She and her boyfriend, Hein Seitsma, joined a Resistance group (coincidentally called HEIN, an acronym translated as “Help each other in need”). They began by spreading news received on clandestine radios from the British Broadcasting Corporation, then smuggling downed Allied pilots to England, either by boat across the North Sea or more circuitously through Portugal.

By 1942, Dutch boys and men were being conscripted to fill factory jobs in Germany, and the harassment of Dutch Jews escalated to outright persecution and transport to the Westerbork camp, in the northeast Netherlands, from which they were deported to death camps in Germany and German-occupied Poland.

A plea for help by Herman van Zuidan, a Jewish co-worker of Ms. Eman’s at the bank, prompted her Resistance group to focus on stealing food and gas ration cards, forging identity papers and sheltering hundreds of fugitive Jews.

She said of the German occupiers, “It was beyond their comprehension that we would risk so much for the Jews.”

Ms. Eman delivered supplies and moral support to one apartment in The Hague that in late 1942 housed 27 Jews in hiding. The walls were paper thin. Crying babies and even toilet flushing risked raising the suspicions of neighbors, who knew only that a woman had been living there alone.

“‘You’re living on top of a volcano that’s ready to erupt,’ I told her,” Ms. Eman wrote of the woman.

Each time some of the Jews there were smuggled out to isolated farms outside the city, Ms. Eman returned to find that the woman had taken in more refugees.

Finally the Gestapo raided the apartment. A diary that contained her code name was discovered. She stopped in to see her boss at the bank.

“I stuck my head in his door,” she recalled, “and all I said was, ‘I have to go. See you after the war.’”

Ms. Eman remained a fugitive for months. She and Mr. Seitsma decided to marry and even set a wedding date, but then delayed it until after the war.

In May 1944, while carrying false identity papers on a train, Ms. Eman was stopped, arrested and imprisoned — but not before she managed to ditch an envelope filled with even more incriminating evidence. She had hidden it under her blouse, but managed to toss it away while the arresting officers were distracted. They were admiring a raincoat belonging to a fellow officer that was made of a new synthetic material called plastic.

Ms. Eman was interned in the Vught concentration camp in the southern Netherlands, but after stubbornly insisting that she was simply a callow housemaid, she was released three months later, in August 1944. She immediately rejoined the Resistance and remained with it until May 1945, when she mounted a tank and directed Canadian liberators to die-hard German snipers only days before Germany surrendered.

“Just like that, the Germans threw up their hands,” she recalled. “There I sat on the top of one of those tanks. It was my own private triumph: I felt at that moment as if I’d actually won the war.”

At Vught she had been assigned to wash the bloody uniforms of Dutch prisoners who had been executed, shot in the stomach to ensure a more excruciating death. She was in constant fear of recognizing her fiancé’s uniform, she recalled.

She learned in June 1945 that Hein Sietsma had been captured a month before she was and tortured to death at Dachau in Germany, barely four months before it was liberated.

By some miracle, a letter he had written on a single sheet of toilet paper and tossed from a train as he was being transported to the camp found its way to her.

“Darling, don’t count on seeing each other again soon,” he wrote, she said. “Even if we won’t see each other on earth again, we will never be sorry for what we did, and that we took this stand.”

He signed off with the Latin phrase that was engraved on the gold engagement ring that he had given her: “Omnia vincit amor.” Love conquers all.


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